Focusing for 5 minutes

Creating Breathe is part of my personal journey to increase focus and attention. My success or failure at work depend on my ability to keep structures of code in my head as I try to solve problems and create solutions. Focus is a key factor in the depth and breadth of my code, and the usefulness and lasting quality of my work.

But I can’t stay focused on something for longer than 5 minutes at a time. That’s bad. I’ve had moments when I’ve had longer focus. But those are infrequent occasions, when my energy and mood is high, and the code I’m working on is challenging but not impossible or frustratingly illusive.

I believe it’s because I’m anxious all the time. There is a set of conversations rambling in my mind, which include:

  • You better not waste your time
  • Something isn’t right
  • …Am I forgetting something?

Maybe you have a similar set of thoughts. Or different sets, but equally anxiety causing. How many thoughts do you have? How often are you thinking them? Are you aware that you’re thinking them?

The anxiety from these thoughts pull me both away from what I’m working on, or too deep into it. Because I might be forgetting something, I try to go deep into all the things that can possibly go wrong. This quickly leads me away from what I should be working on, like a game of That Makes Me Think Of (TMMTO). And while my code is compiling I make sure that I’m not missing anything on Gmail, Slack, Facebook, xkcd, Dr. McNinja, etc. I shouldn’t just sit here and stare blankly into nothing as my code compiles, right? Or maybe I should go get something to drink.


At first the idea of an app for breathing was OK, not my cup-of-tea. But I really wanted to do something with random reminders. I have had this idea for an app in the back of my mind for over a year now and Breathe was basically the same thing, but simpler and way better. And I liked the person who was proposing the idea to me, he also had a willing partner for design. All I would have to do was code the thing? I jumped on board without really thinking about it.

While developing Breathe I would use it daily myself. I would use the reminders as a moment to take a step back from what I was doing and relax. This included both body and mind relaxation.

I remember odd forays into meditation groups with a good friend of mine. Buddhist centers in the middle of mountains, Zen centers in a remodeled house, or finding a hairless spot to do some “sitting” with my friend in his studio and his three cats. I would spend the first 10 minutes trying to not think. It’s like trying to balance a pen on its pointy end. And then the rest of the 50 minutes battling all the different pains showing up in my body.

I liked it so much that I thought I would make a habit out of it. That was sarcasm, but I heard about all the benefits and I wanted some of that no-mind stuff that turned Tom Cruise into a Kendo master in one season in The Last Samurai. I tried various things like including it into my daily Muslim prayers, then just 10 minutes a day, then nothing. Like all good habits, they die young.

The Breathe reminders though, they’re like a tap on the shoulder. I sometimes just take one deep breath if I’m really busy. Usually I try to relax my face. That physical act does wonders and triggers my mind to quickly fall into a state of relaxation. Where the body follows, so does the mind. I set it to 10 Breathers between 10 AM and 9PM. When I’m in the middle of coding, I take a breath, relax my face, and continue. While talking to someone I just breathe deeply. If In meeting, I am usually already deep in some Tibetan-monks-meditating-in-the-snow shit.

It may seem contradictory, but the added interruptions from Breathe is helping my life, instead of burdening it.

The Apple Watch

My work is like cooking, but just stretched over a span of 8 hours. Usually I have 2-3 simultaneous tasks that I’m trying to accomplish while making a delicious yet nutritious meal for myself. There would even be a smattering of some miscellaneous tasks like chopping up an extra onion for later, or putting something interesting on TV while I cook. I would neurotically jump between stirring the pot, cleaning the dishes I’ve been using, and frying the side vegetables.

These tasks are always too small and too ever-changing to waste time trying to schedule it with TimedTrainer ahead of time and treat it like a workout.

Recently though I’ve decided to purchase an Apple Watch. What attributed to me spending money on something like the Watch (because I wouldn’t normally) was Apple sending me an email. It said that I’ll get special expedited treatment because I have the Breathe app, which has a Watch Extension, on my account. And they also said that I will be the first one to walk into work with a fancy shiny Apple Watch and all my co-workers will bow down at my feet and kiss it (I think I added that part, and it didn’t happen, someone got it before I did). Writing this now I realize just how powerful something like special treatment was for a stingy person like me, while costing Apple next to nothing extra to do it. Steve Jobs would be proud.

So I had the watch and I wanted to try an experiment. Whenever I could, I would set a reminder before moving onto a different task. I would tell Siri to schedule a 2 minute timer before I would have to stir the pot again. Then while I clean up the counter, I only focus on cleaning, not anxiously worry about the when I need to stir the pot.

The experiment was largely a success. The food turned out delicious and those worry free 2 minutes were bliss to me. Moments that were truly mine, not some mindless action driven by worry of the future or regret of the past. 2 minutes that I remain in the now, given to me by a piece of simple and reliable technology. Again Steve Jobs would be proud.


Using these two technologies, I am trying out new ways to get back into reality. So long it’s been the other way around. Radio and TV took children out of nature and play. Computers now keep us from having to be in the same room with anybody else. Mobile phones keep us from having to look around as we travel through this world.

I welcome a change where I can get one or two minutes of reality. I like getting a gentle tap on my shoulder reminding me to breathe. But it’s all in the experimentation phase, I’m still on my journey. I don’t even know what it is that I’m seeking. Does more focus mean going from 5 minutes to 10 minutes without interrupting myself or going off tangents? Or does it mean that the same 5 minutes are full of quality. And my co-workers would slowly come to hate me if they hear “Hey Siri, timer two minutes 30 seconds” every 10 minutes at work. So I can’t run these experiments in the real world just yet. Maybe I can make an app for that though…

I’m interested in knowing about your challenges and some hacks you’ve thought up that might help me gain focus in my life too. Please leave a comment below with some ideas or stories of your successes or failures. And you should really try Breathe out for yourself and let us know how you like it.



My shoulders are hunched and tight, my forehead scrunched with worry. The precious moments of my life wasted with each short, gasping breath I take. My mind occupied with the mistakes from yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Where am I going with my life? Maybe I shouldn’t be so stubborn with my Mom. Am I being a pushover at work? We’re going to run out of oil by 2030. What will I do if I get cancer? China will overtake the US economy by 2020. I should’ve bought that stock earlier. Is my cholesterol ok? What if I fall down these stairs, break my spine, and then live out the rest of my life regretting—

Take a deep breath in. There is nothing really wrong right now. Breathe out. I am alive, I exist, I am lucky and grateful.

I haven’t found an effective way to interrupt my stream of concerns. Regular Google calendar and Apple reminders haven’t helped me. Instead, I need a random reminder to open my eyes a little wider, relax my forehead, and take a deep doctor’s-office-checkup breath.

For those like me, deeply concerned about everything, I would like you to consider adding one more interruption into your life. I’ve partnered with talented people to work on a vision, towards which we are taking our first tentative steps. It’s an iOS App that interrupts your life to remind you to Breathe. We’re including an Apple Watch App so that you don’t have to glance at your iPhone during meetings.

The value I get from this app is 10 random moments from 10:00 AM to 9:00 PM to take one deep breath, regardless of what I’m working on, which meeting I’m in, or who I’m talking to. When I can, I try to set aside the weight of my responsibilities, and spend 10 seconds to relax my body and mind. I’m sure it’s good for me, we can collect all the statistics and do the research later and I can tell you about it.

Breathe is basically a polished beta app, so there aren’t very many bells and whistles. And maybe that’s how it should remain. I’d like to know what you think of it, please download and try it out for a few days. Then come back here and comment on what you think, and any benefits you get from the app.

Let’s start a conversation.

Breathe iOS App


Secular Unorthodox Muslim

Growing up as a Muslim in America placed me in ethical and socially contradictory environments from an impressionable age. Straddling the gaps between two cultures resulted with my mind becoming a bending, twisty, path between conflicting morals, questionable behavior, and unorthodox beliefs.

So for the past few years I’ve been un-twisting some knots. Sometimes I’d like to take a hot iron to it and smooth out the wrinkles, flatten myself out into a nice crisp set of beliefs with perfect edges that fold just right into my head.

I have some odd beliefs about faith, spirituality, and what being a Muslim is about. But I believe them, they’re my little believies, as Louis CK once put it. And one of those beliefs is that the first Muslims were unorthodox in mind and action. They were questioners of the system by which they’ve lived their entire lives. They were idealistic but were led by a great man who knew how to guide that force.

I also believe that a Muslim is someone who strives for discipline in their behavior and the choices they make. To take the extra time to think and hold off action. To try and learn and not give up even if they don’t get it right the first few (hundred) times.

To the core, I still consider myself as a Muslim because I am always trying to achieve grace. I believe that grace is the underlying theme within the message that our Prophet brought. Grace in form of mercy and of gracefulness, a soft kind touch when possible.

So far I’ve untwisted some of the knots and straightened out the lines of thought into a few of these basic principles (of my own) of being a Muslim. I do not pray 5 times a day but I try and practice discipline in my craft and my hobbies. I don’t socialize at the mosque much, but I try to be gracious and grateful for the conversations I have and the people I’m with.

And I create trouble in the meantime by questioning everything, wondering if there really is a God up there. What if there’s no after-life? What if hell and sin doesn’t exist? Questionings that other “Muslims” would condemn me to the hell-fire for.


Glowing scars

“Please ask questions. Most likely if you have a question, then someone else does too.”

I’ve heard this plenty of times in classrooms and seminars. And it’s never helped ease my fears and raise my hands. I don’t feel any more comfortable speaking my mind, especially in front of a group of people. The fear of asking a stupid question that makes everyone laugh and think “what a retard” still persists.

Great artists know that to touch the hearts of your audience, you must become a mirror for the rage and pain, triumphs and glory that you experience deep within. These strong emotions are broiling in the stomachs of every person, yet on the outside they have to act (literally) like nothing is wrong.

That help-wishful phrase about others having the same questions might not be helpful, but otherwise it’s a very powerful statement. It means that despite what you are feeling, a lot of other people feel the same way you do. And the deeper you go into yourself and pull all those disgusting bits out of you, the more people feel connected to you.

Anyone can become a mirror for someone else, a powerful mirror that changes and moves people. A mirror that shines brightly the flaws in character that frees others from the shame of their own scars. The people who have shone the brightest in history are those who have somehow embraced their flaws, learned from them, then masterfully transformed those flaws into their greatest triumphs. And then these people dedicate their lives to bringing the same transformation to others in their lives.

So if you have a question, a yearning question deep inside you that you haven’t asked anyone because you’re afraid, afraid that no one else will understand, no one else has asked. Then don’t worry about asking it to others in a classroom or a seminar. Ask it of yourself, and find the answer to it.

And then, if you want, you can become a shining mirror to others by sharing your question. You can be the one in front of the classroom or seminar trying to get people to participate and ask you questions. And you can lead them to find the answer for themselves and help transform their lives. You can become a powerful transformative figure that will etch your signature into the book of human history.


Playing a losing chess game

When I play chess, as soon as I hit some internal threshold where I feel like I’m sure to lose the game, I want to (and usually do) quit.

Now how does that translate to the rest of my life I wonder?

Today I won a game even though I was a bishop, a knight, and a pawn down within the first 20 moves. Granted if I was playing against a Grand Master, It’d probably have been a waste of both our times for me to continue playing.

Or maybe the Grand Master wouldn’t think so, and that’s part of being a Grand Master.

This time though, I swallowed hard and didn’t quit. Mainly because my opponent doesn’t quit either no matter how down he is. Eventually I was able to make solid moves until my opponent made mistakes while I kept increasing my advantages.

Before long I was only  down one pawn, but that didn’t matter because I had a discovered check that would allow me to capture his queen.

The game was over, I had won.

When re-analyzing the game, we found that I was allowed to continue forking or skewering his queen on different variations of those last few moves. It was because he made the fatal mistake of moving the king out of his protected pawn structure.

So far in my life I’ve worked to overcome my fear of pursuing goals that might seem unattainable. But I keep becoming hindered because I quit the first time things begin turning sour, when the curve of progress stops going up.

If I had to venture a guess as to the nature of success, I bet that it includes several dips on the road, no matter the pursuit. And yah, I’ve learned to start taking the first step and beginning the journey. But I haven’t been so good at finishing it.


The missing Jiminy Cricket

Growing up I thought that quality was a natural inherent sense in all of us. I would hear things like “follow your conscience” and imagine that inside all of us is some hidden wisdom that will tell us what is good and bad.

As an adult I tell myself that I don’t believe this anymore, but it’s still a deeply ingrained habit of mine to assume that there will be something that stops me from being too bad. Our bodies give us a sense of what is harming us in our immediate physicality. But the cells in our body and the dendrites in our brains don’t have any ability to predict what’s good for us in the future. Or what psychological harm there may be in the long term, or hidden physical harms.

Now the terms “follow your conscience” has taken on a different meaning for me. It’s not the conscience of the little voice I expect to be there to guide me whenever I’m in a confuddle. I’m now trying to find the conscious in me. The awareness when I open my eyes and mind, and drop the automatic filters that block my perception.

It’s satori that I’m seeking. The awareness of the buddha.


last judgment michelangelo buonarroti

Does my faith say you’re going to hell?

My particular upbringing as a Muslim in the deserts of Arizona instilled in me the belief that all people who aren’t Muslims will go to hell.

Hell… even most who are Muslims will go to hell. (For a short few millions of years before they’re exonerated of all their sins)

This poses a personal as well as a social dilemma for me. Personally I don’t believe that I should go to hell. I’m not a bad person, I don’t kick puppies and kittens, I try and control that urge. I try and respect as many people as my racist and sexist upbringing will allow. I live responsibly, mostly ethically. I try not to give anyone a hard time. I hope that I make more people happy in the world than I make them sad.

But I don’t pray regularly, I don’t think about God as nearly as much as I should, I don’t heed the Hadith (or even take them very seriously), and I rarely read the Quran. All of these are minimum criteria, I’m told, to enter Jannah (heaven). Since we don’t believe in a Purgatory, that means it’s the Jahannam (guess what that is?) for me.

I know a lot of good non-muslims, I don’t believe that they should really go to Hell. So I resolve this dilemma by “simply” avoiding the topic of the after-life. This is unfortunate because one of the key principals in my faith is remembering how this life is transient and quick, that there is an after-life and I will be judged.

And this avoidance ripples out to the rest of my thoughts, and thus my actions. I stop going to Mosques where I’m faced with this contradiction directly. I stop having conversations with people about religion, where my hypocrisy can become evident. I even stop thinking about Islam and how I can become a better Muslim.

If I were to try to go back into the fold of my faith, I’d have to confront this dilemma and resolve it in some way. It’s unavoidable, my mind will bring up questions that I won’t be able to answer. I will be tormented with emotions that I won’t know how to deal with, and I’ll have to judge and ostracize others that I would rather think well of and keep in my life.

So what should I do? I don’t have any answers at the moment. Maybe later the fear of Hell will eventually overcome the dilemma and I’ll push non-muslims out of my life and begin to pray and do all the other stuff.

But really? Is that what it means to be a Muslim?


There’s an excerpt on wikipedia that is very interesting:

Awf ibn Malik reported that Muhammad said, “The Jews split into seventy-one sects, one will enter Paradise and seventy will enter Hell. The Christians split into seventy-two sects, seventy-one will enter Hell and one will enter Paradise. By Him in Whose hand is my soul, my Ummah (Muslims) will split into seventy-three sects, one will enter Paradise and seventy-two will enter Hell.” Someone asked, “O Messenger of Allah, who will they be?” He replied, “The main body of the Muslims.”

So it seems that what I’ve been taught to believe all my life is not necessarily the truth (what a shocker!!). And also, if 1/73rds of Muslims can be the “main body,” why can’t 1/72nds of Christians or 1/71ths of Jews be the “main body.” It seems like the math is all there.